Read an Excerpt
Miss Rosellen Lockharte was dying. She could live with that, in a manner of speaking, if not for the noise and the lights. Why couldn't she be permitted to shuffle off this mortal coil in peace? Then again, when had she ever had any peace? Certainly not since coming to Miss Merrihew's Select Academy for Young Females of Distinction.
Young Females of Disease and Contagion, more likely, Rosellen considered as she huddled miserably on her bed, dying of the influenza epidemic that had struck the girls' school. It wasn't even her own bed. No one could be spared to tend to the most junior and least-favored instructor at Miss Merrihew's in her tiny attic room under the rafters, of course.
Therefore, Rosellen and her belongings had been hauled and harried down three flights of stairs to the dormitory room that had been turned into an infirmary, where she could be equally as ignored and uncared for. Now she was separated from the other sick females and their moans, groans, weeping, and retching by a rickety screen. Nothing separated her aching eyes from the lamps left constantly burning except for a sodden towel over her forehead, when one of the maids could remember to bring her a cloth or a bowl of water.
A cup of tea or some broth seemed beyond the resources of the overworked staffer past the scope of Miss Merrihew's munificence toward her least profitable investment. Providentially, since Miss Lockharte's stomach would have rebelled at the sight of food anyway, there was none at her bedside. Why waste a stale muffin on a poorly paid, poorly appreciated penmanship teacher? She would be as hard and dry as that missing muffin soon enough. Worm toast, that's what Rosellen wouldbe. A sob escaped her parched, cracked lips.
"Here now, miss," she heard from nearby, along with the clatter of a tray, which meant it was time for medicine. That would be the overworked maid, Fanny, for none of the teaching staff came near the infirmary, fearing contagion. "No call for carryin' on that way. The doctor says you should be done with your misery by tomorrow."
"I know," Rosellen whimpered. "I heard him."
The local physician had stood right by the old screen--she'd heard its unsteady legs scraping the floor--and said, "I'm sorry to say, but there's no hope for this one, Miss Merrihew. She'll be gone by morning, I fear." He hadn't even bothered to whisper, thinking her already unconscious, Rosellen supposed.
She choked back another sob. "It isn't fair."
"You can say that again, miss. Lucy's gone off to her mum's an' Aggie says she's comin' down with the ague, so there's only me to do all the fetchin' and carryin'. You'd think the mistress would hire on extra staff for all the extra work, but not that one. Part with an extra groat? I should live to see the day."
So should Rosellen, if miracles still happened, but that wasn't what she'd meant. Life was unfair. Of course it was, everyone knew that. But this, this debacle of dying before one's twenty-first birthday, seemed a particularly nasty twist of fate. Rosellen Lockharte was going to die before she'd ever lived. She'd never danced the waltz, never seen fireworks, never even had a dog of her own. Now she'd never have a child of her own, a garden, a lover. She had nothing to show for her twenty years either, nothing to hold up as a recommendation of her worth except for the fancy p's and q's of the pampered daughters of polite society.
Heaven knew, and surely St. Peter would, too, that those same decorative darlings couldn't spell worth a tinker's damn. Miss Merrihew considered that the handwriting of a female of distinction should be elegant first, legible second, and accurate a negligible third. The young ladies in Rosellen's care treated spelling as a creative exercise. St. Peter would look over Rosellen's life on Judgment Day and see the spelling errors.
Now it was too late to make a better impression. Miss Merrihew had even deemed Rosellen past praying for, sending her cleric brother instead to pray over Lady Mary in the next bed. Of course, Lady Mary's father was a duke; he'd gladly pay for the Reverend Mr. Merrihew's reverences. Rosellen's own vicar father, who had cheerfully prayed for and prayed with his penniless parishioners, would be spinning in his grave. Perhaps he'd put in a good word for her, for surely her kind and gentle papa had the angels' ears. Soon enough he'd have Rosellen's ear, too. Too soon.
Right now her own ears were being tormented by Mr. Merrihew's nasal monotone. No, she did not miss Mr. Merrihew's spiritual devotions, any more than she missed the lecher's swinish attentions. Devotions, hah! The cad was more devoted to sinful pleasure than to spiritual piety. If he weren't her employer's brother, Rosellen would have given him a piece of her mind long ago. Instead, all she'd managed to give him was a closed fist, the time he'd cornered her in the choir loft. If the ensuing black eye was another black mark against Miss Lockharte at the Pearly Gates, so be it. In a short life filled with remorse, that was one thing she would not regret.
"Here's your medicine now, miss," Fanny was saying. "And I brung you some barley water, too, what they had fixed for Lady Mary. She won't be needin' it now."
No, Lady Mary had prayers and a hired nurse from the village. Rosellen gladly swallowed the barley water but not the laudanum. If she had one night left to live, she did not wish to pass it in a drugged state, asleep or too groggy to know her own name when the Grim Reaper called for her. Strange, but two days ago--or was it three?--Rosellen had been ready to welcome her own mortality. She'd been in the throes of the influenza then, however; she was merely dying now. Every hour seemed precious. No, she would savor the remaining time. "No laudanum," she managed to mumble.
"I don't know, miss," the maid said, shaking her head. "You needs your rest."
"No," Rosellen insisted, stronger now that her throat wasn't so parched. She'd have rest aplenty soon enough.
The harried maid foresaw another sleepless night for herself. "Miss Merrihew says you're to have it. Doctor's orders."
What did he know? The man was more used to setting broken bones than seeing souls laid to rest. "I'll be fine," she lied. "If you just hand me my lap desk."
All Rosellen had of her mother's was the cherrywood writing desk that had been carted downstairs from the attic chamber along with the rest of her possessions. No one, obviously, expected her to return to her own room.
"What do you want that old thing for now, miss?" Fanny was still holding the glass of laudanum, hoping to pour the contents down Miss Lockharte's throat so that she could get on with the rest of her duties and finally find her own bed.
"I want to write my will, that's what. I'll leave you the desk if you help me now."
"What would I want your old desk for, miss? Can't write, now, can I?"
Rosellen wasn't surprised. The girl had been at Miss Merrihew's for only four years. "I'm sorry. I would have taught you."
"Whatever for? So's I could become one of the teachers like you?"
The look on the maid's face expressed what she thought of Miss Lockharte's advantages over her own position.
"My red cloak then, which you've always admired. I'll leave you that in my will if you hand me the desk and bring the candle closer."
Fanny just clucked her tongue at the foibles of the gentry, but she did as Rosellen requested, propping the young woman up with pillows and setting the wood desk across her knees. "I'll be leavin' the laudanum here, iffen you change your mind."
Rosellen wouldn't. She had too much to accomplish in too short a time. As soon as Fanny left, she opened the desk and withdrew paper, pen, and ink. Then she decided she wasn't up to quills and blotters. She found a sharpened pencil. At least Miss Merrihew never stinted on writing materials for the penmanship instructor.
Rosellen wrote Last Will and Testament across the top of a clean page. Then she stopped to think. Other than her desk and cloak, she had nothing anyone would want, and no one to leave it to anyway. She did, however, have a lot to say. She crossed out Last Will and. She would leave the testimony of her short life as her final bequest.
She had made mistakes along the way, Rosellen freely admitted. Who could claim that he or she hadn't? Yet most of Miss Lockharte's misfortunes, including this gravest--hah!--one of all, were not of her making. At this point she had nothing to lose by laying the blame where it belonged. In fact, she told herself, by expressing her anger and resentment, she might gain some peace for her soul. It couldn't be good to arrive in Heaven with such a large chip on her shoulder. There'd be no room for wings.
On the other hand, who would read the maudlin ramblings of an insignificant instructress? No one. Rosellen crossed out Testament. She'd write letters instead. That way, she was sure those people who had set her, willy-nilly, on this path to perdition at a girls' school would learn of her demise. Perhaps they might even regret their contribution to her downfall. She told herself she didn't want anyone to shed tears for her, nor to feel guilty, but if any of her tormentors felt the slightest twinge, perhaps they would change their ways. What was good for her soul might improve another's. Miss Lockharte's last letters just might benefit someone else. That's what she told herself, anyway.
Rosellen chewed on the pencil, something she'd forbidden her students to do, while she decided where to start. She couldn't blame dear Papa for leaving her unprovided for and unprotected. He'd done his best. Besides, she'd see him soon enough, by her figuring, alongside the mother she barely remembered and the baby brother she never got to know at all. No, she'd start with Mama's brother, Baron Haverhill.
Dear Uncle Townsend, she began. I am dying, and I never had a waltz or a dog or a family Christmas. She'd had happy Christmases in St. Jerome's old vicarage before her mother died, when the parishioners could spare a goose or, later, when Squire Pemberly remembered to invite the widowed vicar and his daughter to the party for his tenant fanners. She'd had gingerbread and Christmas puddings and wassail with the carolers, but she'd never had a celebration with her only relatives, at Haverhill Hall.
When she first came to Miss Merrihew's, she'd heard the students chatter of their holiday plans, the great gatherings, the huge feasts; the joyous celebrations that went on through New Year's to Twelfth Night. That was when she'd realized what she'd missed, what her mother must have missed in the years at the vicarage.
Uncle Townsend had never forgiven his sister, Margaret, for marrying a poor clergyman instead of the wealthy nobleman he'd selected for her. She had made her bed, he firmly believed, so she could lie in it, in the drafty manse of an impoverished parish, on thrice-darned sheets, without any help or notice from her wealthy family.
It wasn't the money that would have made such a difference in their lives, Rosellen wrote, although William Lockharte was a parson who practiced what he preached by giving away most of his meager living to his needier congregation. The absence of kinship, the sense of belonging, was more hurtful. Her mother would not have been so careworn, Rosellen believed, if she'd not been disregarded by her only brother. Vicar Lockharte would not have felt such a failure, dragging a peer's sister to a pockets-to-let parsonage.
Lud only knew if Mama would have survived the childbirthing if she'd had more nourishing food or a maid to help with the laundry and the housekeeping. But Rosellen was not blaming her uncle, she carefully explained in her letter. Her parents had loved each other very much, and they had both known what sacrifices they would have to make. She didn't even blame him for not coming to her mother's funeral. She perfectly understood how, having ignored his own sister in life, he'd felt he had no place at her grave site. Rosellen admired him for not being a hypocrite. He was coldhearted and closed-minded but not a hypocrite.
And he had given Rosellen a Season in London. She thanked Uncle Townsend anew. Of course Papa'd had to humble himself to write to his brother-in-law, almost begging the baron to take her for the few months. Vicar Lockharte had seen no other way of providing for his daughter's future except by putting her in the vicinity of marriageable gentlemen, ones who did not smell of sheep pens, like the few widowers or old bachelors in his own flock. And of course Uncle Townsend had begrudgingly extended the invitation with the proviso that Rosellen make herself useful to her vaporish aunt and her demanding cousin.
Surely it wasn't Uncle Townsend's fault that Aunt Beatrice had never exerted herself to introduce Rosellen to any halfway eligible partis. Nor could he have supposed that Cousin Clarice and her cattish friends would ridicule Rosellen's countrified manners, her outmoded dress, and her vicar's-daughter virtues. Rosellen was not condemning her uncle, she wrote, for London's low morals or for the fact that she hadn't stayed long enough to receive permission to waltz from those old tabbies at Almack's.
He could, however, have asked Rosellen for her explanation about that disastrous evening at Lady Maplethorpe's ball. He could have trusted that she would not have gone out on the balcony with a hey-go-mad young cavalry officer without good reason. He could have had faith in Vicar Lockharte's daughter not to let an inebriated stranger kiss her.
Uncle Townsend could have done all those things, but he had not. He'd listened to Clarice instead, spiteful, jealous, vain Clarice who'd engineered the entire debacle rather than share the least of her beaux. Then he'd declared Rosellen wanton and ruined. She'd been a bad influence on his daughter, a threat to his wife's equilibrium, and a disgrace to her mother's memory. She'd also been on a public coach the next morning.
Uncle Townsend did secure a position for her at Miss Merrihew's, Clarice's old school. What Miss Merrihew might have taught the self-absorbed shrew was a mystery to Rosellen, for Clarice never spoke of aught but fashions, flirtations, and finding the highest-titled, deepest-pocketed fiancé. Despite such a poor recommendation, Rosellen accepted the post of handwriting instructor rather than return to the vicarage, a drain on her father's slim resources, a disappointment to his hopes.
Rosellen did not hold Baron Haverhill responsible for Miss Merrihew's refusal to let her return home to nurse her father in his last hours, she continued on a second sheet. No, she thanked him now for his efforts on her behalf. She was sorry she had embarrassed him in the social world he and his family inhabited. She'd try her best to look after them all when she got to Heaven, as she had every expectation of doing, since she was not a fallen woman despite certain persons' accusations and appearances to the contrary. She did hope, however, that Uncle Townsend would not be quite so quick to judge others in the future or, barring that, that he not sit as magistrate in his home borough. And could he please see that she was buried next to her parents in St. Jerome's churchyard, next to the manse where she'd been raised?
Rosellen folded the letter, then tipped the candle to make a drip of wax to seal it. She felt years younger, pounds lighter, having given expression to her spleen. She felt so much relieved, in fact, that she took out her quill and bottle of ink to address the front of the letter in her best copperplate. There, let Uncle Townsend see that she wasn't an entirely ignorant female, like some she could mention if she weren't a vicar's daughter with hopes of Heaven. Then she sharpened the point on her pencil and smoothed out a fresh sheet of paper. Dear Cousin Clarice, she wrote, I am dying, and I never wore a silk gown.